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The King and I

Music by Richard Rodgers, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
The Lincoln Center Theater
Sunderland Empire
to

When I knew that The King and I was coming to Sunderland Empire I knew that (a) I had to see it, and (b) it would be a magnificent nostalgia-fest.

After seeing it: (a) yes, definitely; (b) no, not really. It's much more than that.

On arrival in the auditorium, the first thing the audience sees is that the house tabs are not in use but instead there is a beautifully decorated front cloth filling in the proscenium arch, nicely lit by what used to be called a 'tab dressing'. Then, when the overture starts (a 14-piece orchestra—not something we see a lot of in touring shows nowadays!), the play of light across that front cloth is quite mesmerising.

The cloth opens, a gauze collapses and we are stunned by the picture we see as Anna Leonowens’s paddle-steamer docks in Bangkok. She is dressed in the expected costume of the period (1860s) with those huge skirts spread out in a wide circle around her and she is with her son, Louis.

We are soon treated to the first of the many classic songs, “I whistle a happy tune”, and, according to my memory of the film, it felt like that Annalene Beechey was channelling Deborah Kerr. Beautifully sung and the packed house was already entranced.

So far, the scenery and the effects are very modern but everything reflects the original.

The production is, in fact, a mixture of the (shall we say?) traditional and the modern. Set (Michael Yeargan), costumes (Catherine Zuber) and the quality of the singing are the traditional—it is so good to hear women’s voices which are not harsh and sharp as they are in so many recent musicals!—whilst the effects and the lighting (superbly designed by Donald Holder) are very modern.

Dance technique has developed considerably since Jerome Robbins choreographed the original in 1951 and choreographer Christopher Gattelli takes Robbins’s choreography to another level, especially in the ballet The Small House of Uncle Thomas (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), which is an absolute joy with its combination of traditional Thai and modern Western dance.

I suppose I should have anticipated these changes, and on one level I probably did because they did not come as much of a surprise. However what really hits home is that so many of the themes—the differences between East and West, sexism and male dominance, inequality, slavery, are all problems which are still unsolved to this day. The king is trying to being his country into the modern world of 1860 but there are countries in our modern world (and, regrettably, individuals) who have not yet managed to reach 1860.

So, very definitely not just a nostalgia fest, but something which still has a lot to say to us.

First and foremost, however, it is superb entertainment. Three hours long, including the interval, but gripping the audience every step of the way so that they all surged to their feet at the end for a well-deserved standing ovation.

The film with Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr (Gertrude Stein in the original Broadway production) has tended to focus attention on the two leads, Anna and the King of Siam, and there is no doubt that Annalene Beechey and Jose Llana more than meet the challenge. From the start, their relationship is really electric, we can almost see the sparks flying and, in the “no-one’s head can be higher than the King’s” scene, her increasing frustration and annoyance are only matched by the pleasure (and sheer fun) he gets from exercising his power. Great performances! And when they come together for “Shall we dance?” it is so satisfying for the audience.

But of course there are other parts and in this performance and two really stood out: Cezarah Bonner as the King’s chief wife Lady Thiang and Kamm Kunaree as Tuptim, the Burmese King’s gift to the King of Siam. She, for me, takes the singing honours; good though everyone else is, her technique and feeling combine to make her duet with her lover Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao), “We kiss in a shadow” one of the highlights of the production.

I cannot fault anyone in the production; their talent and commitment are exemplary, but any reviewer who fails to mention the children would be guilty of gross dereliction of duty. The words “cute” and “adorable” were being bandied around after the show but to me the greatest compliment I can pay them is to say that they all, not matter how young, are damned good actors!

Bartlett Sher's direction is sensitive, imaginative and takes a real delight in the material with which he is working. I've seen a number of productions of The King and I but none, I have to say, match this one.

I loved it, so did the audience. As we stood outside waiting for a taxi I got talking to a family. The two little girls, one probably no more than 7 and the other probably just about 10, had never been to the theatre before. They were absolutely starry-eyed. “Would you like to come back and see another show?” I asked.

“Oh yes!”

For the ladies well into their 80s along the row from me, for those little girls outside and for me and my companion, the three hours (including interval) had passed in a flash.

They don’t write ‘em like that anymore!

Peter Lathan